The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
Since The Bangles released “Manic Monday” in 1985, it seems to have become the best modern example of disdain felt on the morning commute. While Walter Benjamin may not often be quoted alongside an American all-female pop rock band, the environment for public transport is the quintessential “architecture absorbed in distraction” jacked up further when surrounded by the blasé masses in a city as populous as London.
It is easy to not take any notice of the particularities of Charles Holden’s Southgate Station in Haringey, North London, when tube stations are treated with a level of ubiquity that sees us all familiar with the same rubber grip of an escalator, the glazed barrel vaulting above a mindless descent and awaiting at a platform with a relentless stare across the tracks at advertisement for car insurance.
Alas, this is a building that commands its surroundings and demands respect. The tube station has no precedent or prerequisite, it is a gesticulating folly over a man-made void. Behind it, reciprocated buildings on the other side of the bus lanes further emphasize the station as a centre-point, in front, its negative counterpart, the roundabout, makes it a place unavoidable by any means of transport. But it is the early morning that best demonstrates the omni-directional approach as people come from as many as seven different possible routes to take-part in the commute.
Half a drawing is all that is needed to explain this building, a profile beginning at the antenna that gives it the likeness of a spaceship, the first smaller layer of the cake where slender concrete is the icing upon its modernist complement, the glazed wall. Below this, is the concrete overhang of the whole building, decorated with a frieze of Piccadilly blue lightboxes identifying itself. At ground level, leather goods, estate agents and newsagents are housed at equal spacing between brick piers, the section of the building being a shop deep along part of its circumference. If such a description could be lathed 360 degrees, the result is this early twentieth century expression of Scandinavian materiality meeting Streamline Moderne.
As soon as one reaches into the ticket hall from the street, the rear display of shops present themselves amidst ticket offices and today’s digital self-service equivalent. At its very centre is a glazed cubicle where the ticket inspector takes up an almost panoptic location, forcing all others to operate in clockwise and anti-clockwise direction.
Going passed the ticket barrier brings us to an Art-Deco passage down the escalator, brass is the choice of metal casing for the escalators. Sixteen uplighters mimicking miniature Doric columns in the same material flood the space in warmer hues of light and diffuse off the brass to construct a sepia experience as if living through the lens of Wim Wender’s Wings of Desire. Differing immensely from the preferred sanitary white down lighting used today, diffused lighting is the preference of the late-morning starter, gripping their Cappucino in a paper cup, sparing them of such harshness in light colour temperatures more of a domestic environment on their way to work.
At what other point does the modern man look up other than when faced with the ascent of an escalator? Oh, what he might find! Returning from work is a different experience altogether, while the morning was about the rejoicing of form and materiality, the buoyancy of light is the summer evening’s crux. At Southgate station, one takes first proper notice of the role that the clerestory lighting plays.
With natural daylight filling the rotunda and routes down to the tracks, there is a religious atmos about coming home. Reaching the end of the escalators serves itself as a climax of defiance when light immerses itself so fully that one takes little notice of the pencil-thin columns that are doubled either side of the glass wall, furthering the perception of a floating mass on a band of light like that of Agia Sophia. It is only in this enquiry of structural possibility that one fully takes note of the grand column sprouting from above the glass office of the ticket inspector. Uplighting here rises on all sides of the column shaft to give colour and tone on the ceiling, revealing the subtleties of how the column meets the flat plane in a series of kinks that only reveal itself in the changing tones where the uplighting shifts ever so slightly at each angle. Here, the play of light offers itself as a subtle alternative to Gaudi’s expressionist junction of column to ceiling and reminds us of how easy it is to unappreciate the large expanses monotone when faced with a concrete ceiling.
No part of this interior stands untouched by the orchestration of natural and artificial light. In contrast to the long line of horse-racing track gates of other more congested stations where people leave, Southgate station, in its more remote location, offers two openings at ninety degrees to each other with two ticket gates each. Masses of people disperse in one stage via these two openings and subsequently diffuse in as many directions as they arrived as individuals.
Built at a time that parallels with Le Corbusier’s machine-revolution, later in his career he yearned for what he would describe as, the ineffable, begging the question, even during the attempts to abolish the past, can the sensuality of space ever free itself from architecture’s spiritual upbringing?